First, with Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Region President Massoud Barzani met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday and then President Abdullah Gül and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Friday. Erdoğan called for the laying down of arms by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and pledged that the Turkish military will stop all operations against the PKK does so.
Second, a statement made by Barzani after his meeting with Erdoğan is important. “You won’t get anywhere with weapons. The PKK should lay down its arms,” Barzani said following the meetings. He warned that the PKK will “face the consequences” if it continues to use weapons against the Turkish military and said that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) wants “to contribute in every way to a solution to the issue through peaceful methods.”
To understand the importance of the two developments, one needs to put them in context. First, Erdoğan’s mention of the possibility of ending military operations against the PKK is a statement close to what PKK leaders, including the jailed Abdullah Öcalan, have been have been waiting for. In fact, Öcalan has stated in the past that “if Erdoğan were to signal such a possibility, I would stop this war inside a week.” PKK leaders have stated a number of times that if the Turkish government wants a cease-fire, it should be observed by both sides; neither the PKK nor the Turkish military should conduct operations.
Yet, in the last 10 years, Turkish officials have never used such strong terms to signal the end to military operations against the PKK once the PKK lays down its arms. Thus, Erdoğan’s statement is significant in the context of the PKK.
The actual political implications of such statement, however, are limited for two reasons. First, the PKK does not want to lay down its arms. This is why the peace negotiations collapsed last year. The PKK did not accept Öcalan’s proposal to lay down its arms on the grounds that Turkey should lay down its arms first, instead making the condition that they return to the Kurdish region as “self defense forces.” For this very reason, the PKK resumed its terrorist attacks. Thus, calling on the PKK to lay down its arms is not a significant statement in any practical way. Yet the statement that there is a possibility for the operations against the PKK to end is significant because it signals a possible end at some point.
The real reason Erdoğan made such a statement was to open a diplomatic doorway for Barzani to make his own statement. In fact, Barzani has a critical role in Turkey’s new game plan for Iraq and to solve the Kurdish problem. Inviting Barzani to Ankara and mentioning the possibility of stopping operations against the PKK -- a statement Öcalan has long waited to hear -- have the diplomatic implication of recognizing Barzani as a key player. On the one hand, Turkey has strengthened Barzani’s hand in pressuring the PKK. On the other, it signals Iraq’s central authority that Turkey will support Kurdish and Sunni groups in Iraq if the Iraqi government continues to act as a proxy for Iran.
Simply put, Turkey is telling the leader of Iraq that Turkey has no fear of cooperating with Barzani, even if it leads to the establishment of an independent Kurdistan in the region. Thus, hosting Barzani in Ankara and issuing this unexpected statement is relevant not only to the PKK problem but also sends an important signal to other regional players, including Iran and Iraq.
Barzani’s statement reminding the PKK it will face consequences can be read within the context outlined above. Barzani, by making such a bold statement, has signaled that he would side with Turkey against the Baghdad-Tehran-Damascus alliance. The PKK has chosen to side with the Iran-Syria axis. Thus, Barzani’s statement to the PKK should be read in the context of the broader Middle Eastern conflict between the Sunni and Shiite blocks in the region.